Secret Agent [1936)

If this is propaganda, it is among the most artful of all time.  For it seems to emanate from the mind of an individualist and patriot.  Alfred Hitchcock.

We get our subject material from Somerset Maugham.  Ashenden.

“The wrong man!  Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.”  Thus laughs “the General” Peter Lorre…a sort of lovable psychopath (if such a thing is possible).  Yes, the wrong man.  It is to Hitchcock’s oeuvre what prostitution is to Jean-Luc Godard’s.  But it is a grotesque moment.  The wrong man.  In this case, it went all the way:  they killed the wrong man.  Just an innocent old man with a wife and a dog.  All in a day’s work for a covert operative…Lorre’s laughter seems to tell us.

No.  Lorre is no typical agent.  He’s a hitman.  He doesn’t mind killing.  In fact, he kind-of enjoys it.  Takes pride in his craft (as it were).  Very clean, he says…strangling, a knife…no guns…too noisy.

But let’s back up to John Gielgud.  To make a spy, you kill the man.  It is quasi-Christian.  The old is gone.  Behold, the new has come.

The perfect spy has no past.  This sort of agent wakes up to read his own obituary.  Before long, he has a new identity.

Though this film predates WWII, its subject matter of WWI is certainly infused with the building tension of a second continent-wide conflagration.

And again we witness James Bond far before Ian Fleming birthed him.  The milieu is the same.  Gielgud reports to “R”…like the “M” we would all come to know and love.  And of course Lorre…himself an M of another type (see Fritz Lang).

Trouble in the Middle East.  Why can’t it be Tahiti?  Where’s Leonard Bernstein when you need him???

“The Hairless Mexican” a.k.a. “The General” Peter Lorre…kinda like the Federal Reserve:  not Federal and no reserves.  Yes, Lorre is quite hirsute.  As for his rank, it is as dubious as his other winning personality traits.

Gielgud’s not very careful…right from the start.  I suppose they should have trained the chap in the dark arts before sending him out into the field.  At least the field is Switzerland (Allen Dulles’ future stomping grounds).

Back to our Bond parallels…the gorgeous Madeleine Carroll, like Eva Green in Casino Royale, stipulates a separate-bed rule as part of her cover (Gielgud’s “wife”).  We wonder whether her character, like Hitchcock and Green’s Vesper Lynd, is of Catholic upbringing.

But for the main course…we get some rather convincing ethics from Hitchcock–a morality which we would scarcely see again in the future of film through to the 21st century.  To wit, espionage is the dirtiest of jobs.  Never mind the old trick of digging though a rubbish bin:  the whole operation is filthy and loused up with sickening concessions.  Hitchcock gets right to the point quite forthright:  murder.  Many of the darkest jobs are just that!  One can spin it anyway one wants, but it is still cold-blooded.

It’s not all fun and games, Gielgud tries to convey to Madeleine.  If you’re here for a thrill, you’d best recalibrate your perspective:  things are about to get real ugly!

It is some scary shit.  Imagine Olivier Messiaen and Giacinto Scelsi collaborating with Morton Feldman for a 45 second piece.  It’s called Sonata for Corpse and Organ.  Their contact has been murdered.  The assassin pulled out all the stops.  Just after the prelude, a fugue of struggle ensued which left a button from the killer’s garments clutched in the dead organist’s hand.  We get a rich, chromatic chord until Gielgud and Lorre realize there’s far too little harmonic rhythm to this chorale.  The bloke’s been whacked (slumped upon the keys).

This button, a single-use MacGuffin, leads them to offing the wrong man.  Poor old Percy Marmont…

At this, Gielgud is ready to quit…sickened by the thought of having innocent blood on his hands.  Credit Madeleine Carroll with a nice performance…especially when she plays the straight (horrified) woman to Lorre’s laughter.

And so, again like Casino Royale, Gielgud and Carroll (madly in love) decide to dispense with the whole mission and pack it in (complete with a resignation letter to “R” from Gielgud).

I won’t give away too much.  Lorre is fantastic:  both ridiculously awkward in his humor and deft in his acting.

Unfortunately, the artfulness of the film which Hitchcock had lovingly built up is marred by a somewhat daft, abrupt ending.

Like this.

-PD

Rich and Strange [1931)

Though the plot is relatively banal at times, this has to be one of the most bizarre cinematic concoctions ever.  The love stories which spin out from a troubled marriage are but the branches of this unwieldy tree.  Most importantly, this early Hitchcock film should not be overlooked as a superfluous, amateurish outing.

From the first moments we are thrust into the world of René Magritte.  The automata in their bowler hats rush from their clerical jobs and dutifully unfurl their umbrellas at the door before stepping onto a street in London.  All but one.  Poor old Fred (Henry Kendall) is having a rough day at the office and the roughness starts to really get going in earnest once he has clocked out.  Yes, Fred’s umbrella does not open.  On the Tube ride home he makes a series of mistakes due to poor balance.  As he reads the day’s paper with great effort he manages to give our auteur the perfect occasion to segue into the drama proper:  a headline inquiring as to the reader’s satisfaction with life.

Yes, Fred’s umbrella eventually opens…at his own doorstep!  As he enters his humble flat, having been soaked to the bone, his good wife industriously sews a new dress on a hand-cranked sewing machine.  Fred is disgusted with life.  He wants to get away.  To the sea!  Like clockwork, movie magic has a letter arrive in the post informing Fred that a relative is going to give him what’s coming to him in a will early so he can travel and see the world.  Fred and his wife Emily (Joan Barry) are set!

And so they take to the channel.  To Paris!  It becomes obvious early on that Fred has a problem with ocean travel.  For a great deal of the film (an around-the-world voyage) he will be laid up in his cabin too seasick to bat an eyelash.  Emily tries to make the best of it.  A kindly Commander Gordon (Percy Marmont) graciously keeps Emily entertained as her husband wiles away the hours in agony.  Gordon quickly begins falling for Emily.

After Fred finally gets his sea legs, his nouveau riche blindness leads him to follow after a German “princess.”  Soon Fred has far outpaced Emily in adulterous dealings.  The truth of the matter is that Emily feels guilty and doesn’t do much wrong.  Fred, on the other hand, goes head-first into playboy mode.  As the drama plays out, we feel sympathy for the continuously jilted Emily as well as for the sincere Commander Gordon.  Fred becomes more and more revolting by the day.

But this film really gets weird after we find out Fred’s “princess” is no princess at all.  After making off with 1000 pounds sterling, she hot-foots it to Rangoon.  Fred and Emily are then left to hobble back from Singapore to London on a steamer.

The steamer, apparently, crashes.  Fred and Emily are stuck in their cabin and no one hears their cries for help.  Thinking that they will go down with the ship, they are genuinely amazed to see the sun come up the next day.  They climb from their porthole and discover they are the last ones on board this floating wreck (save for a cat).

As the ship starts to take on more water a Chinese junk just happens to pull up.  As the Chinese sailors go aboard to scavenge, Fred and Emily hop on board the junk without asking or explaining (though I suppose the scene speaks for itself).  Once at sea, they witness the steamer finally sink.  All seems to be going well as the Chinese offer the two bowls of food.  Being absolutely ravenous, they forego the chopsticks and eat with their hands.  Across the ship a sailor tacks up the hide of a…what is that?  Yes, a cat.  Fred and Emily abruptly lose their appetites.

That’s about the gist of it.  Hitchcock really makes this thing fly with creative shots from many fascinating vantage points.  There is a bit aboard a moving Tube train.  The sequence in the Folies Bergère is pithy and surreal (especially the shot of the banjo player).  The Paris part in general bears a striking resemblance to the “city symphony” genre which is perhaps best remembered for Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927).  Hitchcock has his protagonist couple mechanically agog as they whip their necks back and forth during intercutting to Notre Dame and other Parisian sights.  The novelty would again show up in Strangers on a Train, but by then Hitch would have the knowing touch to add a constant (a static referent) to the mechanical motion:  the psychotic, uninterested tennis spectator Robert Walker.

…a sea-change/Into something rich and strange.  Indeed.

-PD